Earth-Surface Processes

Earth-surface processes shape the landscape, drive sediment flux, and interact with with global systems such as climate and even tectonics. These processes act over geological time scales as well as shorter, human time. Because earth-surface processes intersect the human realm, research in this area often is relevant to society. For example, when rates of surficial processes such as down-slope movement or coastal erosion are rapid, or act episodically, they can become hazards that threaten human life and property. Researchers at UC Davis study a broad array of earth-surface systems, including rivers, oceans and coasts, natural hazards, how tectonics shape landscape, climate change and climate dynamics, earth-life interactions, and other fields.  


Eric Cowgill portrait

Eric S. Cowgill
Structural Geology and TectonicsEarth-Surface Processes
office: 3121 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 754-6574

Eric Cowgill. Structural geology and tectonics; primarily interested in understanding regional deformation within active continental collision zones. Emphasis on the evolution of orogen-scale fault systems and their interactions. Current projects include determining the regional kinematics of active deformation within the Arabia-Eurasia collision zone and the tectonic evolution of the northern Tibetan Plateau.

Tessa Hill portrait

Tessa M. Hill
Paleoclimate and Paleoenvironmental ChangeGeochemistry; Paleobiology Earth-Surface Processes
office: 1129 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (707) 875-1910

Tessa Hill. Research areas include marine micropaleontology, geological oceanography, and paleoceanography utilizing geochemistry of marine sediment and coral records. Tessa is also involved in interdisciplinary research to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification on coastal California environments. Research in her laboratory includes

  • Culturing of key species in the laboratory under controlled environmental conditions
  • Monitoring modern pH variability on the Northern California coast using pH sensors and oceanographic transects
  • Reconstructing climate variability utilizing geochemical proxies in foraminifera, corals, and other carbonates
  • Investigating coastal environments to understand potential for carbon storage

Louise Kellogg. The solid Earth is in a continual state of deformation both in the deep interior as well as at its surface. I am interested in both "why" and "how" this deformation occurs. One major component of my research is to use computers calculations to study convection in the deep mantle. This work includes studies of the evolution of mantle plumes, models of thermo-chemical convection near Earth's core-mantle boundary, as well as investigations of mantle stirring and mixing over geologic time. Mantle convection is also important in that it drives plate tectonics, deforms the crust, and generates earthquakes. Deformation of the Earth's surface is the second major area of my research. My graduate students and I have been using the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network in conjunction with numerical models to understand the way the Earth's lithosphere deforms and how faults break.

Isabel Montanez portrait

Isabel P. Montañez
GeochemistryPaleoclimate and Paleoenvironmental ChangeNEAT; Earth-Surface Processes
office: 3117 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 754-7823

Isabel Montañez. Research interests are in the sedimentary record of coupled physical and chemical variation in paleo-oceans, global biogeochemical cycling in marine and terrestrial records, and carbonate fluid-rock interaction in sedimentary basins using stratigraphy, petrography and geochemistry, including stable and radiogenic isotopes and trace elements. Research in the laboratory broadly focuses on development of quantitative paleoclimate proxies, and their application to intervals of time characterized by major and/or abrupt climate change including past periods of icehouse-to-greenhouse transitions through to the last deglaciation.

Michael Oskin portrait

Michael E. Oskin
Structural Geology and Tectonics; Earth-Surface Processes
office: 3123 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 752-3993

Michael Oskin. As a structural geologist and geomorphologist, I specialize in active crustal deformation and its relationships to surface processes and topography. My research program addresses three themes:

  1. Quantifying variation of deformation rates and their relationship to earthquakes.
  2. Constraining the forces and processes that govern continental deformation.
  3. Predicting topographic responses to the growth of geologic structures.

These themes build toward a common framework for understanding active crustal deformation and its expression in landscapes. The first two research themes differ largely by time scale, with the first focused on short-term deformation processes over one or more earthquake cycles, and the second concerned with longer-term accumulated deformation and time-averaged processes. The third theme includes the development of new tools to quantify deformation from topography. I also pursue the inverse problem of quantifying surface processes from geomorphic responses to crustal deformation.

Nicholas Pinter. My research focuses on earth-surface processes (geomorphology) applied to a broad range of problems. Much recent work involves rivers, fluvial geomorphology, flood hydrology, floodplains, and watersheds. My research group applies fluvial geomorphology, hydrologic and statistical tools, hydraulic modeling, and other approaches to assess river dynamics and flood hazards. Although much current research focuses on rivers, I continue to work on a broad range of processes that shape the earth surface and operate, in particular, over anthropogenic time scales (yes, the "Anthropocene"). One pressing human application is for managing risk from natural hazards, and my group has worked extensively on quantifying those risks, guiding mitigation and other solutions, and providing a scientific basis for sound natural-hazards public policy.

John Rundle portrait

John B. Rundle
GeophysicsPlanetary Science; Earth-Surface Processes
office: 2131 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 752-6416

John Rundle. My research is concerned with the dynamics of complex systems, for the most part in the geosciences. For over thirty years, my research has focused on using statistical physics to understand the physics of earthquakes and other driven threshold systems. Mathematically, these systems are characterized by phase transitions, both first (nucleation) and second order types. The dynamics of these systems can be understood by the use of field theories developed in other areas of physics, including particle physics and cosmology.

I have a particular interest in the development of methods for earthquake forecasting based on studies of chaos and complexity in driven nonlinear systems, as well as on the use of realistic, large scale numerical simulations. More recently, I have developed an interest in viewing crashes in economic and financial systems as a kind of .Econoquake. that might be understood by analogy to earthquakes and other first order (nucleation) phase transitions.

Dawn Sumner. My research uses stratigraphic, sedimentological, and petrographic studies of carbonate sequences to reconstruct ancient environments and ocean chemistry, the Mars Science Laboratory to develop environmental and stratigraphic models for strata in Gale Crater, Mars, and diverse techniques to understand the effects of recent climate change on photosynthetic microbial communities growing in ice-covered Antarctic lakes.

Please see for ongoing projects.

Kenneth L. Verosub portrait

Kenneth L. Verosub
Geophysics; Earth-Surface Processes
office: 3133 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 752-6911

Kenneth Verosub. Environmental magnetism, quaternary paleoclimate records, correlation of sedimentary sequences using paleointensity, post-depositional alteration of sediments, applications of paleomagnetism to geological problems, and science education. Recently he has become more generally interested in the influence of geologic processes on the development of societies, civilizations and cultures. In addition to on-going paleomagnetic and environmental magnetic studies, he is working on volcanic eruptions that have caused global cooling, seismic risk and subsidence problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the identification of deep groundwater aquifers and the determination of river flows directly from geospatial imagery.

Robert Zierenberg portrait

Robert A. Zierenberg
Geochemistry; Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology; Earth-Surface Processes
office: 3125 Earth and Physical Sciences
phone: (530) 752-1863

Robert Zierenberg. Aqueous geochemistry; stable isotope geochemistry; economic geology. Research has focused on water/rock interaction in active and ancient hydrothermal systems, including the "black smokers" on the mid-ocean ridges. Recent work includes investigation of seafloor hydrothermal systems on sediment-covered portions of the northern Juan de Fuca Ridge and southern Gorda Ridge during Leg 169 of the Ocean Drilling Program. Ancient analogs of seafloor hydrothermal systems investigated include the Turner-Albright massive sulfide deposit in the Josephine Ophiolite, OR, and the Red Dog Pb-Zn-Ag deposit in the Brooks Range, AK. Other interests include the environmental effects of mining, particularly the generation of acid mine drainage, mercury contamination in Clear Lake related to the abandoned Sulphur Bank Hg mine, and the geochemical and biological cycling of sulfur.

Faculty emeriti